Flowers and Farmers in the Mountains

By Allison Goerzen
I grew up on a grain and cattle farm west of Didsbury. The rural lifestyle is pretty familiar to me. I did though, somewhere around teenage-hood, decide it wasn’t for me. I went on to what I thought were bigger and better things. I liked my freedom and spending time with friends, all of which didn’t seem to fit the ‘work from dawn til dusk’ attitude. But it seems that recently something in me has started to shift. I find myself craving time in the countryside more. I seek out places that are quieter and spend more time on my own. I’ve also been getting into plants recently too, and I wonder if it is the natural calling to go back to my roots and be connected with the land. The instinct to learn more about caring for the land in the form of urban (and maybe eventually rural) gardening has been brewing in mind lately too. It seemed I was just waiting for inspiration to hit, and it came in the form of an organic flower farm in the Guatemalan highlands:

Our ride up the mountain

The winding road and cascading vegetation

On Saturday morning we jumped into the back of a pick-up truck in San Miguel to make our way up to Tonina, a village that is nestled along the northern border. It was a windy and bumpy journey through mountain villages and cascading vegetation. The clouds rolled around us and the air was clean and cool. We reached our final destination at 9000 ft. We were met with a big welcome and handed a sweet corn drink that was hot and comforting. Our purpose there was to learn about the farming cooperative (partnered with MCC) and how migration has affected their community. We also got to spend a night in their homes, meeting the farmer’s families and experiencing how they live.

Touring the Vegetable Garden

That morning we took a tour of Tonina which had us walking through a flower-filled wonderland, learning about each crop, and hearing about the benefits the community has experienced since they started the cooperative. Traditionally, they used to only grow mono-crops like corn or wheat and sell the harvest for a minimal amount. They then tried to live off their earnings and so tended to eat only what was cheapest. This was not sustainable because it meant that the community suffered from malnutrition and a lack of resources. They were also forced to rely solely on the success of one crop, no matter the conditions. Now, with the help of MCC, they have begun to learn about the importance of a healthy diet and the value of flowers and organic vegetables in the market. They now grow flowers, vegetables, and fruits as well as raise a variety of animals. They terraced the land and have been experimenting with which plants grow well in their climate, which plants compliment each other, and how to care for the land so they can continue to live there. They no longer rely on just one crop and are able to grow most of their food, freeing up their money for other essentials. They learned that chemicals in the earth does a lot of harm to the soil and caused sicknesses in their community. Instead, they now grow organically which produces larger and tastier vegetables and fruit, as well as ensuring they can continue to farm there for generations to come. Being a part of a cooperative has meant that they are able to share best practices and produce with each other, creating a strong sense of inter-connectedness and community. With the introduction of seed-saving, they are able to start each year without a large financial investment. They also have a variety of animals which each play their part in the whole process. Horses are used to help carry heavy loads, the chickens provide meat and eggs, cattle provide milk, beef, and fertilizer, and the rabbit’s urine is used as a natural bug repellent for the gardens. The village has also used tourism as a source for income because many people walk through on their way to the Tacana Volcano during the December holidays. (The rabbits are sold to tourists too) Workshops are held so other farmers can learn about small-scale, organic farming and Tonina is often toured as an example. Because of the cooperative, this village is thriving and able to support itself.

Verli is one of the many young children who are growing up learning how to care for a garden and farm. She was busy weeding while we toured

In the afternoon, we had a chat with the farmers about migration. We have become increasingly aware of the mass exodus of people out of Latin America and begun to see the hardships migrants face in the cities and borders. In the case of the Marlin Mine, people are leaving because their homes and livelihoods are disappearing. Up in the mountains though, young people leave in search of more money. Stories are still circulated from the civil war in the 80’s when people could cross into the States a lot easier, find great jobs, buy a house, and make a lot of money. It seems that it is still the hope for many that reaching the States is the answer to their problems and prosperity will await them. If you have listened to any speeches from Trump and his take on migrants, you will know that the U.S. is not waiting with open arms. Unfortunately, many who leave home never come back and so it is assumed they are dead. (More on what happens to migrants as they travel will be posted when we get closer to the Northern Mexico border) The farmers sounded hopeful though, that with the introduction of sustainable farming, their children will have more reason to stay and be on the land of their ancestors. They don’t want to lose their children, so it is important to have something worth staying for. The exciting thing is, when new members to the community arrive or children return home, the whole village welcomes them by helping to build their house and giving them seeds to start their crops.

Verli, Bryan, and Emily playing in a tree.

I am incredibly inspired by the hard-working people of Tonina and so grateful I got to see first-hand the importance of small-scale, organic farming. I think it has now given me a voice to what I already knew to be true. Caring for, living off of, and being thankful for the land we occupy is what is needed to heal the world. For me, I will start by planting my mini urban garden on my patio. Who knows where this will take me!

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